Proposed Bill Would Cap Non-Economic Damages in Liability Cases

June 26, 2017
Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

Malpractice suits are one of the contributors to rising health care spending, which reached 17.8 percent in 2015. New legislation recently passed by the House hopes to put a limit on how much patients, including those with permanent damages as a result of malpractice, can win in court. While doctors, including dentists, can benefit from this potential protection, opponents argue it comes at too great a cost to patients. Read on to find out more about the new bill.

New health care legislation could be good news to doctors, but potentially harmful to patients affected by malpractice

A new bill is drawing widespread support from physician groups nationwide. H.R. 1215, or the Protecting Access to Care Act of 2017, would allow individual states’ non-economic damage caps to prevail, provided they are already in place in the state in which a malpractice lawsuit is filed.

The bill, set to be voted on by the U.S. House of Representatives in coming weeks, would set a cap on non-economic damages, like those that cause permanent physical disability to a patient, including disfigurement and pain and suffering, at a $250,000 maximum limit for any healthcare-related lawsuit. This stipulation includes suits involving dentists.

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One group, the American College of Physicians (ACP), has suggested adding language to the legislation that would cap damages at $250,000, regardless of individual state laws. One state, California, has had this damage cap in place since 1975, and many tout it as a success.

In addition to the proposed damage cap, the bill would also:

  • Set a new statute of limitations for filing malpractice lawsuits. A patient would only have three years after the date of the initial injury, or one year after the patient discovers, or should have discovered, the injury.
  • Abolish a rule known as the collateral source rule, which specifies the damages a plaintiff receives cannot be reduced because of payments they receive for their injury or disability from another party, such as worker’s compensation.
  • Ban joint and several liability in successful malpractice lawsuits. This statute makes each individual defendant in a case responsible for paying the entirety of the damage award if other defendants are unable to pay.
  • Set limits to attorney’s contingency fees in malpractice lawsuits.
  • Block lump sum jury awards to plaintiffs in successful cases.
  • Prohibit plaintiffs from naming hospitals or healthcare providers, including dentists, in lawsuits involving allegedly unsafe medications, regardless of any provider negligence in the prescription or administration of the drug.

Opponents of the bill claim the bill itself is unfair and discriminatory to injured patients.

“This bill would limit the legal rights of injured patients and families of those killed by negligent healthcare,” a partnership of over 80 health care, legal, labor and public interest groups claimed.

“Recent studies clearly establish that its provisions would lead to more deaths and injuries, and increased healthcare costs due to a 'broad relaxation of care.’”

Initially, the House Judiciary Committee passed the bill by a vote of 18-17. The bill was then set to be voted upon in mid-June, but that vote was cancelled and has not yet been rescheduled.

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